Murder by Decree (1979)

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*. I’m guessing Bob Clark may be best known today for the early slasher film Black Christmas (a movie that came out just before John Carpenter’s Halloween). So why not take a turn at the most famous slasher in history?
*. Clark also directed A Christmas Story and Porky’s. I think everyone has forgotten about Porky’s now, right? It’s interesting, though, to note his remark on the DVD commentary where he says that re-creating Florida in the ’50s for Porky’s was more difficult than re-creating London in the nineteenth century for this film.
*. By the way, I don’t think I’ll ever mention Porky’s again on this blog, so I hope you got your fill.
*. So who was Jack the Ripper anyway? According to this movie he was actually a couple of guys, Spivey and Slade. But it’s not like you really care. Neither role has any lines and the actor who played Spivey was just an extra Clark picked out of a line-up for his odd face (and I’m guessing his sharky eyes). It’s not even clear what happens to Spivey at the end. Gielgud tells us he’s gone mad. In any event, it’s only important how the crimes link up to the royal family. They’ve been decreed. But again, by whom? Just concerned and misguided Masons in general? The plot is a bit fuzzy.
*. I love how fast the camera moves in to attack the first victim, Liz Stride. That’s a very creepy effect when done as a POV shot and I’m surprised more filmmakers don’t make use of it. Also note the scoring. Is that the theme from Jaws? Inspired by it, surely.

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*. Yes, the pea-squashing scene was Mason’s own bit of work. It’s interesting how often that happens, that the most memorable or best “written” scene in a movie will be the result of improvisation or changes made on set. It tells you something about just how fluid the filmmaking process always is.
*. I think the criticism of Watson turning away from the mutilated body is fair. He is a doctor. On the other hand, his speciality is not forensics and he is a moral and decent man so this particular corpse might be more than he can stand.
*. How pointless, and stupid, is it of Holmes to smash a perfectly good beaker with his thugee scarf just to make a point? I guess it wakes the audience up, but my immediate response was to wonder why he did it.
*. The same source material was recycled in the Johnny Depp vehicle From Hell. Compare and contrast the street scenes in the two movies. Compare and contrast the appearance of the prostitutes. From the 1970s to the 2000s was a big leap.
*. I think you have to see this as a film of the ’70s in other ways as well. It is clearly part of the 1970s cinema of paranoia, with powerful people in government responsible for a high-level cover-up, complete with sinister assassins looking to derail any investigation by either framing the investigator or killing him.

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*. People like to ask who the best screen Holmes ever was, in part because there have been so many good ones. At the top of the list one usually finds Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett (star of the long-running BBC series). They were certainly among the most prolific. Christopher Plummer isn’t bad here, but I don’t care much for the way the role is imagined. He seems pretty bland most of the time, and then oddly possessed by humanistic passion.
*. I do think James Mason ranks among my favourite Watsons though.
*. Why is Foxborough presented as such a bad guy? Holmes finds him contemptible, and he is later killed off, presumably meeting a semi-justifiable end at the hands of Slade. But isn’t he basically on Holmes’s side? He helps him in his investigation, and his enemies are the very people Holmes is trying to get. Like Holmes he wants to “expose their lies, reveal their abuse of power.” I suppose Holmes is against his “ends justify the means” attitude, but why call him “a man devoid of conscience, as guilty as the murderer himself.” This isn’t true or fair at all. Watson is terrified at the thought of a radical in Scotland Yard, but we’ve been prepared for his knee-jerk defense of the establishment.

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*. Kudos to Genevieve Bujold for playing her scene in the asylum with almost no make-up. She’s not afraid to not look glamorous. But again, it was the ’70s.
*. Does Holmes pick up any information that is of any real use from the extravagantly bewhiskered Lees? (That’s Donald Sutherland, looking like he’s been smoking a bit of the pipe himself.) The more I think about it, the more I agree with Pauline Kael’s description of the plot as “impenetrable.” Even by a psychic.

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*. London is beautifully reconstructed, especially with the crowds of people in period costume. It’s amazing this movie didn’t cost more. On the other hand, the criticism that a lot of it seems shot on the same couple of street sets is also fair. They obviously just changed the signs on the buildings. On the commentary track Bob Clark objects that there were seventeen full sets built for the film. That may be true, but all of the East End seems to be just one of them.
*. Originally cast with Peter O’Toole and Laurence Olivier but they couldn’t work together. Shame. O’Toole in particular might have given the movie more of a spark. Holmes was more of an eccentric than the character Plummer gives us.
*. Alien was shooting at the same studio at the same time. I don’t know why I find that interesting, but I do.
*. A very talky film, never more so than in the conclusion, which plays like it was written for the stage. That quality is extended to the closing credits, which Clark confesses as being stagey, a way of allowing the cast to come out and take their bows.
*. There’s a lot to like here, but at the end of the day the hopelessly muddled plot frustrates any attempt at building suspense. It’s mostly well cast, but that may have worked against it as well. Everyone seems just a little too comfortable.

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